PSFK chats with Brooklyn Flea co-founder Eric Demby about how he brought Smorgasburg to Manhattan and why the food scene is so popular.
The Brooklyn Flea’s food division, Smorgasburg, has become a food market of international acclaim. With two weekend locations for Smorgasburg, food at both Flea market locations, curation of Central Park’s Summerstage food, and, as of yesterday, a partnership at the Bowery location of Whole Foods in NYC it’s fair to say that Smorgasburg has taken on a life of it’s own.
PSFK had a chance to speak with Brooklyn Flea co-founder, Eric Demby, about the history of food at the Flea, their place on the Brooklyn food circuit, and the ambitious partnership with America’s favorite gourmet supermarket.
How did food evolve at the Flea?
The market opened in April of 2008. So there were 4 or 5 months of trying to get from zero to whatever number of vendors we opened with. There was no Eureka moment with the food. When I worked for Marty Markowitz, the Brooklyn Borough President, it was the beginning of the health department becoming more of a presence. At that time, the Red Hook Food Vendors were starting to get heavily regulated and were in danger of losing a season. There was a lot of political support for them, Chuck Schumer, Marty and others were trying to help them out. People really loved the Red Hood Food Vendors, they were this kind of early on, Brooklyn, authentic, ethnic, food destination…thing. It was a really cool thing to do and it was very underground, there weren’t a lot of blogs at the time and it was sort of a secret, Brooklyn food thing.
By virtue of working with Marty I knew the folks that organized them and it was clear by winter that they may have ceased to exist. So, I went to the organizer and told him I was working on the Flea and wondered if a few of the best vendors would be interested in working with us, because we were on private property and thought we’d probably be regulated differently. The health department approved the idea and once we secured that we featured it on our blog and some press caught on and people starting getting excited.
Then we got some other people like the Salvatore Bklyn Ricotta ladies who I approached after seeing in the Dining section of the New York Times. I met with them and a week later they told me they were going to learn how to make canolis out of their Ricotta. So, you’d be able to buy their Ricotta, but then you’d have a special version of what they do that’s only available at the Flea. That was an early version of what a lot of people do there, which is take what they normally do outside the market and create something special to buy and eat immediately. Kumquat Cupcakery has been there since the beginning. The two pickle companies, McClure’s and Rick’s, signed on as did Whimsy and Spice cookies. So, there were all these young, Brooklyn food companies. Choice Market had a small thing where you could get pastries. Blue Marble Ice Cream lived in my neighborhood when they started so I approached them. So, there were only a handful of these companies around, but enough of them were there that it gave it a little bit of credibility.
So, you were searching back then?
Yeah, it was like that for two or three years. It was very friend and word of mouth based at the beginning. Then there was a New York Times article within months of how the food was kind of it’s own thing. That attracted more companies to want to sell, the economy started turning and people started looking at food as a potential second career.
There were enough articles about the new food scene, Brooklyn, and the Flea and even the food at the market that it snowballed. We had 10 food vendors the first day, 20 the second year, and then 35 by 2010. By the end of 2010 we were out of room for the space allotted for food. So, when we got the space in Williamsburg for the Flea they really wanted us to do two days of programming. We had gotten to the point where due to space we were turning away people with really good ideas or restaurants. So, we decided to open Smorgasburg at that Williamsburg location. Now, inevitably a lot of the media focuses on the food.
Do you think you guys helped start the Brooklyn food scene?
There’s been great food in Brooklyn for generations, but in terms of the new scene in the way it’s talked about now it’s kind of a chicken and egg thing. I don’t think you’d have mentioned a Brooklyn food scene when we started the Flea in ’08, yet at the same time all these people were starting these new companies. We came along and provided a platform for them to showcase their goods. I feel like they go hand in hand in some ways. Now, we’re growing the Smorgasburg brand via partnerships and a new venue in DUMBO.
Regarding the partnerships, can you take me through how those started? Was Central Park first?
Yeah, City Parks put out an RFP for Summerstage and we applied after hearing about it from a friend. That was something we did that we felt would really help our vendors and give our brand some great exposure. The people that go to those shows, I mean it’s 5,000 people, 50 shows a year, they’ve maybe never even heard of the Flea or those vendors. It’s kind of intangible. We sell beer there as well, so it helps us as a business too. That’s become our model of curation, we either curate something as a benefit to the vendors and we don’t make any money or if there’s a bar involved we run that and we make money that way. We don’t want to take a piece of the vendors pie when they are working so hard to stay open. It’s become a symbiotic thing.
Now, you’re latest partnership with Whole Foods is possibly the biggest move you guys have made.
Yeah, and this thing connects to what I was just saying. A lot of people approach us to have Flea food, and there is never any money in it for us. So, we often refer vendors and stay out of it, which builds loyalty with them.
A lof of our vendors are in Whole Foods or want to get in there. There’s a woman who works there named Elly Truesdell who is the Northeast regional local food forager. She “forages” for local brands to connect the markets to the community. So, there’s already a taste of what we do and the community we help organize in Whole Foods.
They came to us and said “we have a restaurant space upstairs at the Bowery location and we’d like you to curate it.” There’s a coffee bar up there too that we’ll be curating a few months from now. It’s great a way to help our vendors get exposure. It’s not going to be a big profit source for us. Our vendors are all right at this point where they need viable and reliable revenue. So, even though it may not benefit us financially we need our vendors to be sustainable so that they can continue to do our markets and not do other markets. It keeps us this center for this great food.
There’s a narrative that has come about in which if you come in and you put your time and do all of the markets we have, which is four at the moment, you might be able to quit your day job and not even want to open a restaurant. The Whole Foods thing is like another step in that maturation for us and our vendors. It’s kind of like an experiment that says “are our vendors a draw outside of the market”? It’s gives everybody this whole brick and mortar, seven day a week thing that we don’t do.
So, it’s not necessarily financially beneficial to your company?
Not right now. It’s a trial run. Whole Foods is opening two stores in Brooklyn in the next couple of years and you can see all sorts of opportunities that can come out of it.
Do you see your business as an incubator?
Yeah, for sure. We help the folks get their licensing, insurance, telling them how to be legit with regulations and getting into local kitchens. And we’re giving them an audience to test out products and food and giving them access to all types of press, investors, and stores that come there.
The Whole Foods thing is a reaction to that.
What’s next for you guys?
We’re opening a restaurant and beer hall in Crown Heights next year under the Smorgasburg name. We’ll have four food stations and a bar. It seems promising.